Rotator Cuff Tear: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Pain in the shoulder may occur for many different reasons, but a tear in the rotator cuff is one of the most common causes.  Studies have shown that 30% of those under the age of 70 and 70% of those over age 80 have a rotator cuff tear.

What is a Rotator Cuff?

The rotator cuff is a large tendon comprised of four muscles that all combine to form a “cuff” over the upper end of the arm.  The rotator cuff helps to lift and rotate the arm and stabilize the ball of the shoulder within the joint.  In simpler terms, your rotator cuff is made up of four muscles and their tendons which allow you to move your arm away from your body—they are responsible for keeping the shoulder joint stable.  A rotator cuff tear is within any part of this group of muscles.

How Does it Feel?  Rotator Cuff Tear Symptoms

Rotator cuff symptoms tend to worsen as time goes on.  At first, symptoms may be relieved with rest, but eventually symptoms can become constant.  Common rotator tear cuff symptoms include:

  • Pain—rotator cuff tears can cause an aching pain in both the front of the shoulder and the outer side of the upper arm.
  • Weakness—the shoulder will be weak due to the detachment of the muscle from the bone, especially when lifting or with any overhead activity.
  • Lack of Mobility—some motions may be too painful. Movements may pinch the tendon so that the shoulder is not able to rotate effectively to allow the arm to complete the action.  It may become difficult to place the arm behind your back.
  • Stiffness—your shoulder can feel stiff with lifting or any movement.
  • clicking sound when raising the arm

Causes of a Rotator Cuff Tear

Rotator cuff tears are more common later in life, but they can also occur in younger people.  Heavy laborers and athletes are commonly affected, as are older adults who fall and injure the rotator cuff or strain the shoulder.  Some causes of a rotator cuff tear may include:

  • Keeping the arm in the same position for long periods of time
  • Sleeping on the same arm every night
  • Playing sports that require the arm to be moved repeatedly over the head such as tennis, baseball and swimming
  • Poor posture
  • Age
  • Working with the arm overhead for long periods of time such as painting or carpentry
  • Poor control of your shoulder and shoulder blade muscles

Treatment of a Rotator Cuff Tear

If left untreated, a rotator cuff tear injury can cause severe pain and a decrease in your ability to use the arm. Treating a rotator cuff tear may include physical therapy, resting the shoulder, avoiding any activities that cause pain, ice packs and anti-inflammatory medication.

Physical Therapy Treatment of a Rotator Cuff Tear

The goal of physical therapy is to improve the function of the muscles that surround the shoulder.  When you strengthen those muscles, it will help compensate for damaged tendons and improve the range of motion and mechanics of the shoulder joint.

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